M*A*S*H was a comedy about war. That’s a pretty dark place to start, and M*A*S*H was pretty famous for being able to bounce back and forth between off-the-wall humor and dark, maudlin drama. In fact, in an episode of Futurama, iHawk, a character based on Hawkeye (Alan Alda), has a switch that causes him to oscillate between irreverent humor and maudlin drinking. That was not an inaccurate portrayal of the characters on the show, especially Hawkeye.
In order to live on the battlefield and to treat the wounded, the crew of the M*A*S*H tent have to balance accepting the horrible reality in front of them with standing back and mocking life’s cruelties. It made M*A*S*H a show where the audience could not guess what the theme of the next show was going to be like.
Small amount of background for this episode: During the Korean War, Edward R. Murrow, the legendary newsman, conducted a series of battlefield interviews with Marines. While other documentaries had been done between then and the airing of M*A*S*H, most people cite Murrow’s interviews as the inspiration for this episode. The content of the questions definitely seems to drive this comparison home.
The episode begins by saying that it’s going to be an interview by Clete Roberts (an actual war correspondent) of the members of the Medical Tent in the Korean War. He warns the viewer that they may hear some language that will be bleeped from the episode (note: M*A*S*H never used bleeps before now). And that’s where the “interviews at the frontline” theme ends. The episode isn’t really set-up to be a series of interviews with the characters in order for them to say the things that you’d normally hear during a conversation with soldiers. Instead, the show is an opportunity to allow the characters to answer questions that might never have come up in an actual episode. It allows for several different things to happen throughout the episode: 1) the characters are allowed to answer several questions the audience was begging for, 2) the characters were encouraged to openly speak about the nature of war, and 3) it allowed series creator Larry Gelbart to get a few things off his chest about what he considered to be the realities of the government’s involvement in Vietnam, even though the show was set in Korea (note: this was 1976. The answer on everybody’s minds was “bad decision”).
To Gelbart’s credit, he never said anything bad about the soldiers, only the nature of war. When asked if war could, or should, ever be glamorized, Hawkeye comments that he can’t even enjoy Hemingway anymore after all that he’s seen. He does, however, say that war may have a lasting value only because it produces men like those he works with, who are the finest kind of men out there. When B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farell, who had just replaced “Trapper John”) was asked if he’d ever be friends with his fellow members of the 4077 after the war, he tells the interviewer that he can’t know for sure. Part of him would love to know his friends forever, but another part of him would rather forget that part of his life. I’ve only known a handful of soldiers, some friends, some family, but I can say that this has been a sentiment I’ve seen carried by most of the ones in a war-zone.
M*A*S*H was able to both satisfy the audience’s love for the characters, while simultaneously showing how miserable they are. Quite a feat.
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Here’s the entire episode: